According to a recent article by Quentin Hardy in the New York Times, AT&T, the $147 billion telecom company with 280,000 employees, is trying to reinvent itself. It is changing from a phone company competing with other telecoms (e.g., Verizon) to a cloud computing company competing with all of the tech giants (e.g., Google). Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, is leading this change through their “Vision 2020.”
In 2012, Mr. Stephenson realized, much to his dismay, that his staff was woefully unschooled for the new technology. Vision 2020, as the company calls it, is a program that combines online and classroom-based course work in subjects like digital networking and data science, as well as a look at old skills that can be transferred to new careers.
Stephenson said that employees will have to continue to “retool” themselves. Clearly, he and his executives recognize the need for employee learning and a culture that supports that learning. Stephenson seems to believe that more training is the answer.
I’m afraid their emphasis on formal training is not going to prepare the Company to compete in the fast paced, high tech, global environment that we have today and will continue to have well into the future.Training, whether face-to-face or online, might be part of the answer, but training will never develop the employees the Company needs.
First of all, training is not learning. It’s nice that employees are taking courses from Udacity and in-house trainers. But organizational learning comes from applying new knowledge and skills in practice and then on-the-job, from seeing clearly how those new competencies will help the company, getting feedback, and having the support of their managers. Unless the culture changes substantially where continuous learning is the routine of work and not seen as something you do outside of work, learning will continue to be haphazard and unconnected to results.
Hardy points out one of the barriers to learning in Vision 2020:
In an ambitious corporate education program that started about two years ago, he is offering to pay for classes (at least some of them) to help employees modernize their skills. But there’s a catch: They have to take these classes on their own time and sometimes pay for them with their own money.
Younger AT&T employees are seizing this opportunity that Vision 2020 gives them to upgrade their knowledge and skills. They are grabbing the chance to develop competencies that will make them more valuable to the Company going forward. Older employees are resisting the move away from what they know, hoping to finish their careers with AT&T fixing copper lines and installing fiber optic cable, the work that they’ve always done. Apparently, these employees have learned that simply by avoiding attending training or avoiding applying the training, they can get by. This is "fixed-growth" thinking and is another barrier to creating a learning culture in the company.
At one level, of course, you can’t predict what’s going to be a big deal in three- to five-years’ time. You couldn’t have seen Airbnb five years ago, or Uber five years ago, or the success of WhatsApp. So I don’t spend too much time trying to predict where those things are going to go. I suppose I look more at how do you build a flexible environment that’s able to take advantage of what’s going to be really important?
Rather than making more courses available to employees, AT&T should prepare for the future by focusing on creating a “flexible environment” in which employees are always learning. It’s 5G applications today; it will be something faster and more powerful tomorrow. This means not learning only for today, but continuous learning related to the “permanent whitewater” of the communications industry. It means learning intentionally in the many formal and informal ways that people can learn at work.
AT&T needs to create an environment in which continuous learning is valued and supported by managers. In this culture, managers make learning an important part of the job of their direct reports. Employees are held accountable for performance improvement, not just training. They are expected to apply learning on the job in a way that improves their performance and the performance of everyone around them. Work and learning merge into the role of all employees. The Company can’t be successful using a 20th Century method to meet a 21rst Century challenge.